Tell us, please, about the system of corporal punishment which existed in Great Britain in the past.
o As with most countries in the world, the punishments enforced in the past seem brutal by our standards. Many of them were simply cruel, but generally just reflecting the mores1 of the age. Then death and suffering were often far closer to the lives of ordinary people than are to most of us today, living as we do in the sanitised2 21st century. It was common for most children to die in infancy and for many of the remainder not to live beyond their teens. For much of our history, the expectation was for marriage at or before the age of thirteen with highly probable death for women during childbirth by the age of twenty. The prospect for men was severe injury or death from wounds suffered in time of war or national conflict. For all, old age came frighteningly early: maybe by the time they were thirty in cities while their country cousins might hope for another ten years, if some illness, plague3 or accident did not carry them off sooner. When life was such a constant struggle for survival, there was little room for sentimentality. Furthermore, there was widespread belief in religion with the hope that the present life was a time of trial and testing in preparation for a better future in the hereafter4. Against such a grim background, physical punishment for even minor disobedience or misconduct seemed trivial and the punishments endured should be seen in this context.
o For criminals, the punishments were often barbarous in the extreme, usually preceded by incarceration5 in a filthy, overcrowded, cold, damp and dark prison, perhaps confined with iron manacles6. If the prisoner was rich enough, he or she could often buy food or other 'luxuries' from the jailer and in some cases even pay another to take their place.
Torture to extract confessions was common and the methods used included 'pressing' with weights, the rack7 and the iron maiden8. Minor offences might be punished by branding9 with a red-hot iron. After the discovery of overseas lands which became part of the British Empire, transportation to the colonies was a popular punishment, serving both the purposes of removing the offender from the vicinity of his or her criminal associates and victims and also populating those far-off regions with Englishmen. Australia was a popular destination for such convicts10 and it was often the case that those who survived their sentence11 (typically seven years) would choose to remain in their new homeland. The age of criminal responsibility was low and young children might suffer these fates if convicted. Two favourite punishments were the stocks12 and the pillory13, which were in some ways similar. The stocks comprised two planks of wood clamped together at ground level with holes to imprison the offender's14 legs and sometimes his arms as well. The pillory comprised similar clamped planks, but raised on a post so that the offender was standing upright with his neck and wrists held firmly. In each case, the offender would be exposed for a fixed period - perhaps an hour - to the ridicule15 of passers-by. If the crime warranted it and the onlookers were so inclined, rubbish, rotten fruit and stones might be hurled at the pinioned16 criminal. The effect would be that all his neighbours would know of his offence. These gave rise to such common expressions as "a laughing stock", being "pilloried by the press", etc.
o Many crimes were punishable by death, which for us usually meant hanging in a public place. This was regarded as a great spectacle and crowds would come to watch the hanging of a well-known person. The atmosphere was almost like a carnival, with seats being sold and rooms overlooking the place being let for the day. Food and drink sellers would ply their wares whilst pickpockets17 would risk their own freedom amongst the distracted crowds. Souvenirs would be sold, including lengths of the hangman's rope, items of the executed person's clothing and even bits of his body as these were thought to have curative or magical properties. Persons of high rank would often be beheaded18 and some could choose the implement used, an axe or a sword, and would pay the executioner to carry out his duty quickly with one clean cut. Again, the blood and body parts would be valued for various magical properties.
o Now, the death sentence is forbidden throughout the EL), although most countries still find it an effective measure. Corporal punishment is also prohibited in schools and strongly discouraged at home. In fact, today, teachers have been deprived of so many sanctions against naughty19 children that a state of near anarchy exists in many schools. It is often reported that the violence is now usually carried out by the pupils (or their parents) against the teachers and it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit teachers to work in some schools, especially in inner-city20 schools with large undisciplined populations.
1 mores - нравы 2 sanitised - стерильный 3 plague - чума 4 hereafter - загробный мир 5 incarceration - заключение в тюрьму 6 manacles - (ручные) кандалы 7 rack - дыба 8 iron maiden - "железная дева" (средневековое орудие пыток в виде саркофага с шипами вовнутрь, часто выполненного в форме женщины) 9 branding - клеймение 10 convict - осужденный 11 sentence - приговор 12 stocks- (мн. ист.) колодки 13 pillory - позорный столб 14 offender - преступник 15 ridicule - осмеяние 16 pinioned - (зд.) закованный в колодки 17 pickpocket - вор-карманник 18 behead - отрубать голову 19 naughty - непослушный 20 inner-city - центральная часть города (в крупных городах западных стран в центре часто проживает наименее обеспеченная часть населения)